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Why They Run — South Orange-Maplewood Women Discuss Running for Office

“If nobody’s asked any woman in this room to run, I’m asking you now — run!”

This statement, from Maplewood Democratic Committee Vice Chair Garnet Hall, came about half way through the SOMA WOMEN’s FORUM: Running for Office—The First Steps held Tuesday night, May 23 at The Woodland in Maplewood.

About 20 women and a couple of supportive men engaged in the 90-minute program led by Barbara Santoro  of South Orange and Erin Loos-Cutraro, a Maplewood resident who is the Co-Founder and CEO of the national initiative She Should Run.

Part of She Should Run’s mission states, “We believe that women of all backgrounds should have an equal shot at elected leadership and that our country will benefit from having a government with varied perspectives and experiences.”

Loos-Cutraro described how the She Should Run program had ballooned in the aftermath of the November 8 Presidential election. She said that so many notifications of signups started flooding her phone on November 9 that she thought there must have been a technical glitch.

Not so.

Women have become motivated to run more than ever in recent months. One notable local example is Nureed Saeed, a three-year resident of South Orange who came out of nowhere to within 20 votes of gaining elected office on the South Orange Village Board of Trustees on May 9.

Although Saeed lost, she and Village President Sheena Collum have become fast friends and Saeed will now serve on the South Orange Development Committee.

The four women on the panel included Collum, Saeed, Hall and South Orange Board of Education member Maureen Jones. Each talked about her experience running for elected office and provided an outline on how to run.

A major issue for women is the feeling of unworthiness or of not being the perfect candidate. “In work and in politics, we don’t take the risks men take,” said Loos-Cutraro.

Jones concurred, saying she was a “PTA mom” with a background in education but no legal training. Ultimately she realized that she had “a unique perspective to offer” and that she could gain the qualities and perspectives she lacked from her team.

Jones said she also feared being “molded into a candidate” and advised, “Be who you are. Be true to yourself.”

Many of the women said they grappled with “mom guilt.” Hall told the story of pulling up from work with takeout that she was going to hand off to her young son before heading to a Seth Boyden PTA meeting. That evening, as her son stood outside the house, saying “Give me the food!” she made the decision to pull the car into the driveway and sit down to eat with her children.

The women talked about dealing with sexism: Collum told of often being the only woman in the room in meetings in Trenton or with developers. In one instance, a man at a meeting in South Orange handed Collum his coat, thinking that she was an assistant to the Village Administrator.

Saeed talked of dealing with multiple “strikes” — being young, female, a person of color and Muslim. Although she said that incidents of outright hostility were rare as she campaigned door to door, they nonetheless “shake you to your core.” Saeed said that, instead of feeling cowled, she grew ever more resolute to run.

“That is the reason why [I ran]. When they do it to me, what stops them from doing it to my kids?” said Saeed, her voice filled with emotion as the other panelists leaned toward her and nodded.

Hall noted that even if one fails to gain political office (“Sometimes you have to lose to win”), there are many ways to serve. For example, she said, there are 127 committees in Maplewood. She encouraged the women in the room to get involved in committees and noted that the Maplewood Democratic Committee often culls district leaders and potential candidates from the ranks of the committees.

Collum concurred, noting the many committees also available to volunteers in South Orange.

However, Collum, who is the first woman ever elected as Village President of South Orange, encouraged the women to think big.

“You don’t need to start small. Go for it. Like this woman did” — Collum motioned to Saeed. “Don’t wait your turn.”

Maureen Jones, Garnet Hall, Sheena Collum and Nureed Saeed
Seated: Maureen Jones, Garnet Hall, Sheena Collum and Nureed Saeed. Standing: Erin Loos-Cutraro and Barbara Santoro
Maureen Jones, Garnet Hall, Sheena Collum and Nureed Saeed

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